Cotton criticizes Biden on Russia, ‘half measures’ on Ukraine

Afghanistan exit emboldened Putin, delays cost Zelenskyy, senator says

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., attends a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting at the Capitol in Washington in this May 25, 2022 file photo. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton offered blunt criticism of the Biden administration's actions regarding Russia on Wednesday, contending the White House has been "deterring itself" from providing the Ukrainian military with resources to protect itself from Russian forces.

During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Cotton additionally tied the state of Russia's invasion of Ukraine to the United States' withdrawal from Afghanistan, questioning if the Biden administration's actions gave Russian President Vladimir Putin the temptation to invade Ukraine.

"I'd say from the very beginning, they've been engaging in half-measures while Ukraine has been half-succeeding, unless you quit pussyfooting around on the battlefield," the Little Rock Republican said.

The hearing -- the first of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the current Congress -- focused on threats to global security, with witnesses discussing threats posed by Russia as well as China's growing influence on international affairs.

Cotton connected the ongoing military conflict to the United States' exit from Afghanistan in 2021, in which the Taliban seized control of the country following America's messy departure. In making the comparison, Cotton referenced late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's 1946 "Iron Curtain" speech and the World War II figure's warning of "offering temptations to a trial of strength."

"He offered that caution specifically about the Russians, who he had just seen up close and personal as allies and friends for many years," the senator said. "There's nothing they respect so much as military strength, and nothing for which they have less respect than military weakness."

Roger Zakheim with the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute -- a nonprofit organization rooted in the conservative principles of the 40th president -- agreed with Cotton that the Afghanistan withdrawal correlates with Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"The United States looked weak," Zakheim said.

"It looked like we were unable to carry out military operations, and so, we looked defeated, and I think when you look weak, people like Vladimir Putin seek to exploit the opportunity."

Cotton additionally found faults with President Joe Biden's actions related to Russia early in his presidency. The United States agreed to extend the New START Treaty with Russia -- capping the number of certain missiles and warheads until February 2026 -- and waived sanctions against a company involved in the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.

Biden announced sanctions on the pipeline's parent company and corporate officers last February after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine.

"It made clear to everybody -- including, I think, to President Biden -- that engagement with Vladimir Putin, that seeking to put forward a carrot in order to prevent the type of behavior that we've seen consistently from Vladimir Putin ... is not going to work," Zakheim answered to Cotton.

"President Putin responds to one thing: force in kind and strength. That is what the Ukrainians have shown and this Congress has supported and actually pushed the president to be more forceful in that support and to understand the urgency that's required there."

Cotton said the United States needed to do more with supplying Ukrainian forces with military resources, arguing officials' reluctance with providing vehicles and equipment has curbed Ukraine's effectiveness in combating the Russian military.

"We have more than 1 million cluster munitions in our stockpiles here in the United States. To date, we are not providing them in anything like sizeable numbers," the senator said.

Cluster munitions are weapons containing multiple explosive submunitions with the purpose of scattering bombs and inflicting damage over a large area. More than 100 countries -- but not the United States and Russia -- have signed an international treaty against the use and development of these weapons.

"I think that anything we have in our inventory that would be useful for this battle, we ought to offer to the Ukrainians," Zakheim said.

Not all senators criticized the Biden administration's handling of Ukraine. Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine -- who followed Cotton in asking questions -- complimented the White House's efforts to assemble a global front against Russia, contrasting the approach with former President Donald Trump, who was impeached in December 2019 for withholding aid to Ukraine before asking President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to investigate Biden and his son Hunter.